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'Shelter Dogs' unleashes painful facts about strays

Sue Sternberg, who runs the Rondout Valley Kennels in Accord, N.Y., is no sentimentalist. Of the strays and drop-offs who arrive at her dog shelter, some will have to die. There are the "bad" dogs, dominant-aggressive types with "hard stares" and quick bites. And then there are the sweet-natured "good" dogs who, for whatever reason, age or ill luck, cannot be quickly relocated with new owners.

Sternberg, the complex heroine of Cynthia Wade's excellent documentary "Shelter Dogs," airing tonight as part of HBO's "America Undercover" series, advocates euthanasia. She is straightforward about the long-term prospects for a dog in a shelter -- in a word, deterioration -- and she won't allow it to happen, for the simple reason that she loves dogs.

With Sternberg, we visit a shelter that operates a "no-kill" policy, and the inmates there are a sorry sight: raw-muzzled from gnawing on the wires, spinning in anguished circles, or simply staring out of their chain-linked confinement with blazing, static eyes.

Next to this euthanasia seems the soft option, and if the sight of a dog being "put to sleep" upsets you then do not watch ``Shelter Dogs." It happens three times, and each time we're astonished by the instant deadness of a dead dog -- paws crossed, tongue-tip cartoonishly protruding, X's for eyes.Sternberg wonders if in purgatory the souls of all the dogs she has dispatched will confront her. Each euthanasia, it is apparent, constitutes an act of self-overcoming for her, a prevalence of will over instinct. The condemned dog gets his last meal at McDonald's, which gives a particular solemnity to the ritual of the drive-through window.

Through monologues and montages, "Shelter Dogs" sticks pretty closely to Sternberg and her worldview, or dog view: The only other interviewees are her staff. She has the fierceness of someone who has struggled toward her vocation. ``My whole life seems to have been leading here," she says.

But you couldn't exactly call her a "people person." When Ginger, a skinny, jumpy 4-year-old Sighthound mix, is dropped off at the shelter by a new mum who doesn't like the way the dog is looking at her baby, Sternberg is ruggedly matter-of-fact.

"This is gonna be like putting her in a torture chamber," she tells the wide-eyed woman. "She's not gonna understand that we're trying to find her a home in two weeks while every moment she lives in hell." Sternberg performs these bleak diagnostics through mouthfuls of pizza; the woman bursts into tears.

Things look very bleak for Ginger -- who wants a dog that can't be around children? -- until she's rescued by a figure straight from dog heaven: a large, aging, slow-talking farmer with massive friendly hands. "Ever seen a car before?" he gently asks, carrying her from the shelter like a bride.

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